Calling the Pen: Can Chris Davis' agony of defeat become the thrill of victory again? -
Baseball Essays

Calling the Pen: Can Chris Davis’ agony of defeat become the thrill of victory again?


ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” was a Saturday staple in our house when I was growing up — the opening intro still vivid in my memory. The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. The human drama of athletic competition.

There were signs of it on Monday night, and you didn’t have to span the globe to find it. It was there in Minneapolis, and here in Baltimore.

A year after their historic collapse in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament — when the Virginia Cavaliers became the only No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16, the UMBC Retrievers — Virginia turned its humiliation into redemption by winning the national championship.


Earlier that night, the Orioles’ Chris Davis went 0-for-5 to establish a major league record for position players with 49 consecutive at-bats without a hit. The mark reached 54 before Davis ended it Saturday with a two-run single in the first inning against the Red Sox.

There is a spotlight on those who play sports at the highest levels. Everything seems to unfold in high definition, down to the slow motion of a basketball barely touching the pinkie of a player before it goes out of bounds on a key possession of the NCAA final. We see plays from different angles and at different speeds as we second-guess an official’s split-second call…or yell at the TV as a batter chases another pitch outside the strike zone. No one escapes scrutiny as we watch to escape reality, or at least tell ourselves that.

Before Virginia played for the title, its coach, Tony Bennett, received a message from Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney that read: “Let the light that shines in you be brighter than the light that shines on you.”

Bennett, who was humbled by last year’s loss, was humble in victory. He insisted that he and his players face the devastating loss to UMBC and not hide from it. They could learn from it. They could grow from it. They could use it as motivation. But there was no gloating on Monday night, just joy in a magical comeback story.

“Wide World of Sports” was compelling because it got that about sports — that there is human drama in athletic competition…the thrill of those victories, and the agony of those defeats.

The agony of defeat in its intro was represented by skier Vinko Bogataj, who wiped out on the takeoff ramp and tumbled toward a gallery of spectators. Bogataj suffered a concussion and a broken ankle in a terrifying spill at the 1970 World Ski Flying Championships in West Germany.

The fall became an iconic image in America. “He didn’t have a clue he was famous,” his daughter Sandra told That changed when ABC tracked him down in Slovenia and asked him to attend a ceremony in New York to celebrate the 20th anniversary of “Wide World of Sports” in 1981. It was reported that Bogataj received the loudest ovation among a group that included some of the best-known athletes in the world.

Chris Davis has experienced a different kind of fall, one whose emotional pain isn’t seen. His $161 million contract makes him an easy target. Last year, he hit only .168; this year he started 0-for-33 before getting his first hit. At 33, there are many who think a comeback story is beyond his capability. He was booed by some on Opening Day and during the weekend series against New York.

But a neat thing happened on Monday night, when he set the record for most at-bats without a hit in front of just 6,585 fans at Camden Yards. No one booed. In fact, the fans cheered his every at-bat, as if hoping they could will him a hit.

“I just thought the fan reaction to Chris last night was phenomenal,” Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said on Tuesday. “Phenomenal. Obviously, he’s going through a really tough time, and I just thought it was so cool and shows a lot about our fan base, how they were really cheering him on.

“There was disappointment when he didn’t get those hits, but I just thought their reaction to the tough times he’s had, and how they cheered him last night, was fantastic.”

On Thursday, Davis sounded like a man who wasn’t hiding from his embarrassment but facing it with the help of hitting coach Don Long.

“The last three days we’ve done kind of a drill series that’s new, something that Don came up with that I really like,” Davis said. “I feel like it’s been very productive, and I’m going to stay after it. I’m not going to give in. I’m not going to give up. That’s not who I am, that’s not what I’m about. And at some point, it will turn around.”

During Monday night’s trophy presentation, Virginia’s Bennett told the story of playing a song for his team called “Hills and Valleys.” Tauren Wells sings: “I’ve walked among the shadows. You wiped my tears away. And I’ve felt the pain of heartbreak. And I’ve seen the brighter days.”

“It means that you are never alone in the hills or the valleys,” Bennett said of the song.

Davis might not experience a redemption story like Virginia’s, but he’s trying hard not to give in to the agony of defeat. He knows the thrill of victory will taste all the sweeter if he can regain his swing and his swagger.

The human drama of athletic competition keeps us coming back, just like it did for me each Saturday for the next episode of “Wide World of Sports.” There’s always another story to tell.

Jack Gibbons spent 46 years in sports journalism, including a chunk of that time as sports editor of The Baltimore Sun. Now retired from full-time work, Jack serves as the lead editor and writer for’s “Calling the Pen,” a periodic feature that highlights baseball essays written by the community. If you would like to contribute to ‘Calling the Pen,” send a 750-1,200-word, original piece via email to [email protected] for consideration.

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